Last month, Special Olympics athletes from Orange County, N.C. won gold while representing Team Special Olympics North Carolina at the 2022 USA Games.
The national competition, which took place from June 5 to June 12 in Orlando, Fla., is held every four years. The 2022 games brought together more than 5,500 athletes and coaches from across the U.S. and the Caribbean to participate in 19 different Olympic-style team and individual sports.
Seventy-five athletes and Unified partners represented Team Special Olympics North Carolina at the 2022 USA Games. Unified partners are individuals without intellectual disabilities who train and compete alongside Special Olympics athletes. Special Olympics Orange County sent two track athletes and a UNC Unified basketball team to the Games as part of the North Carolina team.
The UNC Unified basketball team consisted of Special Olympics athletes and UNC students that met the coaches and athletes last summer through tryouts. Meeting weekly on Sundays in the Dean E. Smith Center, the team practiced and competed against other local teams to gear up for the USA Games.
Despite this preparation, the USA Games still marked a huge jump in the level of competition for the Orange County team.
“It was a little different because, when you play in North Carolina, we pretty much know all the teams that we have been playing against,” Jonathan Wilson, the UNC Unified basketball team’s head coach said. “We knew what their tendencies were. When we went down to Florida, we had no idea what we would be coming up against."
For the nine members of the basketball team and the two track athletes, the USA Games marked their first-ever appearance in a national event. For some, the trip to Orlando itself was a first.
“I had fun because I had never been out of the state of North Carolina,” basketball athlete Clyde Gattis said. “I wish we could stay longer.”
The team started off the competition on Monday with a 53-31 victory over Kentucky. With a sense of confidence coming off their first win, North Carolina sailed through the rest of the competition with wins over Texas, Ohio and Kentucky. In the championship game, North Carolina beat Florida 35-26 to win gold.
The UNC Unified basketball team finished the USA Games undefeated with a 5-0 record, which Wilson credits to the strong chemistry of the team.
“When it comes to Unified partners and athletes, they have to actually build a relationship to perform,” said Wilson.
For the Unified partners, building those relationships through weekly practices with teammates came easily.
“Going down to Florida, we had no idea what to expect," Unified partner Katie Baich said. "We’d only played multiple other Special Olympics organization teams in North Carolina, so we didn’t know what the competition would be like. But we’d already figured out how each other played. We knew how to set each other up to score points. So having that knowledge and letting that transition into the games, made it super easy for us to go 5-0 because we knew that we could do it.”
In addition to the UNC Unified basketball team, Hunter Stanford and Preston Uhlenberg both represented Orange County as they participated in athletics events. Stanford won gold in the 400-meter dash, which was televised on ESPN3. Uhlenberg won the 100m event but was disqualified for a lane violation. The pair also had strong performances in the 200m, as Stanford finished in fifth and Uhlenberg finished in seventh place.
Athletes, partners, and coaches alike were met with overwhelming support from the Special Olympics community in Orlando. The relationships among athletes from Orange County extended to those from Team Special Olympics North Carolina and beyond.
“I didn’t truly understand the extent of the Special Olympics, but when you go to the USA Games, (it's) just the support,” Baich said. “Everyone is there cheering for each other. It’s like one large family.”
Team Special Olympics North Carolina returned with 26 gold medals, 28 silver medals, and 23 bronze medals. However, the memories made and relationships formed meant so much more to the athletes than the hardware they brought home.
“This group we were with, it was our first year all together,” basketball athlete Kevin Thomas said. “I'm so amazed and so grateful for how well and quickly we bonded together as a team. All the teammates were amazing, so much fun, and had great humor. I really enjoyed playing.”